Thirty years ago an extended women’s music and arts performance program was a revolutionary idea; today it’s an expression of a community’s solidarity.
Tying together artistic veterans and newcomers in a series of conversations and performances, La Peña Cultural Center celebrates its 30th year of community-building by putting the spotlight on mujeres (women).
The five-month series opens Saturday evening with the mother of all folk music, Ronnie Gilbert, a founding member of the Weavers. In the mid-20th century the Weavers took folk music out of the hollows and hills of the American backwoods, put it on stage, in a political context, and eventually before U.S. Congress where the Weavers were accused of being anti-American.
After they were blacklisted, the Weavers were no longer able to play in publicly owned auditoriums and their successful pop careers tanked, but the musicians (including former Weaver Pete Seeger) continue to perform and to promote socially responsible values.
In conversation and performance with Ronnie Gilbert will be Holly Near, the feminist singer/songwriter whose career parallels Gilbert’s, but decades later.
Sylvia Sherman, La Peña’s development director and co-organizer of the Mujeres series said she is as excited about the on-stage pre-performance conversations between the artists as she is about their artistic collaborations.
“To hear Ronnie Gilbert talk about how, when she was a young girl in New York and her parents dragged her to one of those union meetings, she didn’t want to be there... Then she saw a tall black man stand up and sing in this beautiful voice. Paul Robeson. At that moment she realized the power of music to really hold people’s attention and inspire them. That was one of the reasons she became a singer,” Sherman said.
Longtime friends and fellow musicians Lichi Fuentes and Donna Viscuso are co-curators of the Mujeres series at La Peña. They conceived the idea of a women’s series while driving to rehearsal together.
“We’ve played together, off and on, for 10 years,” Viscuso recalled. “Lichi was talking about female composers and players even I hadn’t heard of and we realized how invisible we all are. We decided to do this because no one else was going to do it. This program is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many great women musicians here in the Bay Area.”
Sherman believes the Mujeres program ideally exemplifies La Peña’s programming mission.
“We wanted to feature generations of artists. Highlight the talent of a particular community of artists—in this case of female artists—pulled together from different generations, different communities, different social movements, different disciplines,” said Sherman. “We’re really excited because we’re dealing with people who were groundbreakers and we’re pairing them with young (artists) from today.
“As we’re facing our 30th anniversary we’re really focused on ‘Passing it on. Passing it down.’ And ensuring that the work of this center, and its mission—which is to support community art and diverse communities and to bring together artists in social movements—that all of that continues for the next 30 years or more,” said Sherman. “I love it when I look in the audience and see younger women hearing their stories and hearing their music. That’s definitely the intention, to try and bring in younger audiences to hear some of the veterans, and to showcase them together.”
The hands-on approach gets a big boost a month later when renowned female virtuoso Rebeca Mauleón offers a musical afternoon workshop for players of all levels on Saturday, April 2. Titled “Descarga 101: The Art of the Latin Jam Session,” the event promises to “unlock the secrets to collective grooving” Latin-style. Later the same evening Mauleón will perform her unique melange of salsa, jazz, flamenco, gospel and rhythm and blues with a local all-star group.
The Mujeres series integrates both youthful organizations and youthful expression, such as hip-hop music and dance, into the mix. Oakland’s Destiny Arts Youth Performance Group with mash it up with Pilipino hip-hop sensations Diskarte Namin in May.
Carolyn Brandy (formerly the drum instructor at Berkeley Arts Magnet School and now working with youth organizations in San Francisco’s Mission District) will perform with the young women of Las Locas de Loco Bloco, also in May. Susan Muscarella, founder and director of the Berkeley Jazzschool, will perform with one of her student ensembles in July. Also in July locally and nationally celebrated, hip-hop/spoken word artist Aya de Leon will collaborate with the Bay Area R&B legend Linda Tillery and jazz guitarist Nina Gerber.
In total, 11 events are scheduled for the Mujeres series, running from March 12 through Aug. 6 at La Pena Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave. Specific event and ticket information is available at www.lapena.org/Mujeres/Mujeres or by phone at 849-2568.